Producers: Randall Emmett, George Furla, Meadow Williams, Vance Owen, Shaun Sanghani and Luillo Ruiz Director: Michael Polish Screenplay: Vance Owen, Darryl Hicks and Michael Polish Cast: Meadow Williams, Thomas Kretschmann, Al Pacino, Swen Temmel, Mitch Pileggi, Carston Norgaard, Lala Kent, Marcus Rafinski and Carlos Leal Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
There was a time when Al Pacino’s toolbox included the ability to give restrained, nuanced performances, but on the evidence of his recent work, that time has passed. His now-default bombast, however, can be most welcome on occasion, especially when he’s stuck in inferior material; and that’s certainly the case with this curiously inert docu-drama about Mildred Gillars, the American expatriate who became Axis Sally, the Tokyo Rose of the European theatre during World War II, broadcasting Nazi propaganda from Berlin to undermine U.S. morale.
Based on a book by William E. Owen and Vance Owen, the screenplay by Vance, Darryl Hicks and director Michael Polish shuffles accounts of Gillars’ career in Germany between 1941 and 1945 and of her 1948 treason trial in Washington. Naturally it simplifies a great deal, but more importantly aims to humanize a much-detested woman, portraying her as having been drawn into her radio job by penury and love, kept in it by coercion, and saved from execution by the efforts of a lawyer who might have been appointed to ensure her conviction but ultimately did his job too well.
This is a potentially fascinating story, but Polish’s telling of it is, except for Pacino’s over-the-top turn as her defense counsel James L. Laughlin, so lackluster that tedium soon sets in.
The German-set segments follow the recruitment of Gillars (Meadow Williams) by Max Otto Koischwitz (Carston Norgaard), who becomes her manager and lover until his death in 1944. He introduces her to Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels (Thomas Kretschmann, doing a Snidely Whiplash bit), who puts her own the air with a backup band and writes scripts that he demands she recite word-for-word. According to Mildred’s post-war recollections, he also sexually abused her, and in turn she attempted, unsuccessfully, to assassinate him.
The Washington-based portion of the narrative pits Laughlin against stern prosecutor John Kelley (Mitch Pileggi). Acting-wise, it’s no contest, with Pacino overwhelming the reliable but humdrum Pileggi at every turn. But the balance is somewhat redressed by the presence of an incredibly wooden actor named Swen Temmel as Billy Owen, the naïve, nervous fellow Laughlin takes on as his second chair. It’s he who eventually protests in the face of public hostility that Gillars “did nothing wrong” and advances the argument that Laughlin initially rejected as too technical but uses effectively in his summation to the jury.
That long speech really gives Pacino the opportunity to strut his stuff. It’s every bit as imposing a monologue as the one that Orson Welles delivered as the Clarence Darrow stand-in in “Compulsion,” but while Welles underplayed his scene (though with him restraint never really registered as such), Pacino goes full throttle, hamming things up mercilessly—even his unruly hair seems fully engaged. And he brings some welcome relief from the general malaise.
Much of that is due to Williams, who’s totally incapable of making this Gillars anything more than a stiff fashion plate whose transition from Hollywood star wannabe to misunderstood pawn remotely credible. The most you can say of her performance is that she wears the elegant costumes carefully designed for her by Julia Michelle Santiago well.
Otherwise the film, which has a roster of six producers (including Williams) and a small army of co-producers and executive producers, is a pretty small-scaled affair. Virtually all the scenes are set in a few interiors, none very elaborately appointed except for Laughlin’s office, which looks like the interior of a library reading room. (The production design is credited to Mailara Santana Pomales.)
That may be the result of the limitations of shooting in Durado, Puerto Rico, where suitable exteriors were lacking. The cinematography is by Jayson Crothers, who uses a desaturated color palette and lots of light, shadow and luminous auras to try to give the images a painterly feel, with very limited success. Editor Raúl Marchand Sánchez inserts archival footage, some of it clumsily manipulated, to break the visual monotony, but that doesn’t add much either, nor does the score by Kubilay Uner, which employs some old standards performed by Williams and her backup band in the radio scenes.
The story of Axis Sally (or Axis Sallys, since there were actually two of them. one based in Rome but unmentioned here) could have made for an absorbing film, but it’s badly fumbled by Polish and most of his collaborators. Pacino seems to be having fun, though, and he might pass along a bit of it to you.